Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Research Councils UK


· Sustainable food production requires understanding the interconnectedness of the food production and supply chain with the wider environment, climate change, resource and energy use, land use, global markets and wider societal issues

· Developing the knowledge base to inform understanding will require a coordinated multidisciplinary research effort

· The Global Food Security (GFS) programme is a multi-partner programme, including five Research Councils, key Government departments and the Technology Strategy Board, designed to address the food security challenge

· UK Research Councils deliver a number of other research programmes to inform sustainable food production and supply, often working in partnership and with Government departments


1. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership set up to champion the research supported by the seven UK Research Councils. RCUK was established in 2002 to enable the Councils to work together more effectively to enhance the overall impact and effectiveness of their research, training and innovation activities, contributing to the delivery of the Government’s objectives for science and innovation. Further details are available at .

2. This evidence is submitted by RCUK on behalf of the Research Councils listed below and represents their independent views. It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Knowledge and Innovation Group in the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS). The submission is made on behalf of the following Councils:

· Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC [1] )

· Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC [2] )

· Natural Environment Research Council (NERC [3] )

3. RCUK’s response focuses on the provision of underpinning research for the sustainable increase in production and supply of safe, nutritious and affordable food. It serves to highlight the investment the UK Research Councils have made in producing and disseminating the knowledge to inform policy-makers and other end-users, and to drive innovation for sustainable food production.

Sustainable food production – definition and challenges

4. The sustainable intensification needed to feed a world population expected to be 9 billion by 2050 must ensure that adverse impacts on terrestrial and aquatic environments are minimised, while also adapting to other societal, economic and health challenges. It is essential that measures to enhance food security do not undermine the other ecosystem services on which food production depends and with which it interacts. 

5. Meeting the challenges of sustainable food production requires appropriate future land use, policy, market and technology decisions. The knowledge base to inform these decisions is currently insufficient.

6. Developing the necessary knowledge base requires the coordination of a multidisciplinary research effort to understand the interconnectedness of the food chain with the wider environment, climate change, resource and energy use, land use, global markets and wider societal issues. Multidisciplinary and integrated research from across the natural and social sciences, coupled with engineering, will help inform decisions for food production which is - in itself - one of the largest drivers of environmental change.

7. In 2010 the UK government, under the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir John Beddington, produced a UK Cross-Government Food Research and Innovation Strategy [4] . As defined in the foreword:

"...the issues surrounding food are frequently complex, inter-connected and multi-faceted. Often they extend across organisational responsibilities. Solutions must take account of this complexity to be coherent, and if they are to succeed need to draw on the breadth of knowledge and understanding that is available from many disciplines, organisations and sectors".

Global Food Security programme [5]

8. The Global Food Security Programme5 is a multi-agency programme designed to address the challenge of providing the world’s growing population with a sustainable, secure, affordable supply of nutritious good quality food from less land and with lower inputs, in the context of global climate and environmental change. Led by BBSRC, it brings together five of the Research Councils (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council (MRC), as well as BBSRC, ESRC and NERC) in partnership with relevant Government departments and the devolved administrations. It builds on the activities of each of the funding partners and aims to add value to their investments. It is intended to bring additional coherence by acting as a focus for joint activities and alignment of their individual activities with shared goals.

9. A priority focus of the GFS programme is sustainable food production and supply. The GFS programme comprises four themes that map onto the Cross-Government Food Research and Innovation Strategy [6] . These themes and associated lead organisations are:

· Sustainable food production and supply (led by BBSRC, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Department for International Development (DFID) and the Scottish Government) - to include: crop and livestock production, aquaculture, food processing, manufacture and transport.

· Resource efficiency (led by NERC, with Defra) - to include: land use and soils, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, energy, water and nutrients

· Sustainable, healthy, safe diets (led by MRC and the Food Standards Agency (FSA)) – to include food safety throughout the supply chain, nutrition, consumer behaviour, food choice and accessibility

· Economic resilience (led by ESRC; with BIS) to include global trade, food market economics, economic impact of food safety issues, competitiveness of farming and food businesses

10. The GFS programme includes five Research Councils working in partnership with relevant Government departments, agencies, and the devolved administrations. It builds on the activities of each of the funding partners and aims to add value to their investments. It is intended to bring additional coherence by acting as a focus for joint activities and alignment of their individual activities with shared goals.

11. The GFS programme will provide added value through:

· improved cohesion between funders in this area – including sharing of views and strategy development at early stages, and improved awareness of one another’s strategies and priorities. This follows the model provided by the Living With Environmental Change [7] programme which includes a similar range of funders and engenders the principle of co-design, co-production and co-delivery to ensure that the evidence produced meets the needs of policymakers and other users.

· providing leadership – helping to build a more integrated community of researchers and users; acting as a focal point for the diverse research communities, industry, politicians and policy-makers; helping to maximise the value and impact of food security research across government, and to make a strong case for that investment; providing a platform to lever greater contribution of funding from the private sector and from international partner organisations.

· increased impact - through better coordinated and more effective dialogue with and stronger links to wider stakeholders/users (such as agriculture and other industrial sectors, policy makers, civil society organisations and the public); increased UK interactions internationally; linking research priorities and outcomes better to the development agenda, G8 commitments and Millennium Development Goals; a more coherent UK approach to the EU food security agenda; increasing the impact of research findings in public policy including regulatory frameworks; use of appropriate mechanisms for evaluation of the success of the programme.

· increased innovation - through new knowledge leading to new products, processes and policy/regulatory approaches that support and encourage innovation, as well as through novel interdisciplinary approaches to address the challenges of delivering sustainable future food systems. This will include protecting and respecting intellectual property rights to encourage innovation and investment in research.

· improved horizon scanning and foresight - to identify and respond to emerging priorities, for example by joint analyses and exploiting opportunities to recognise and address gaps and weaknesses in research, skills and facilities.

Other relevant cross-Research Council programmes

12. Working in partnership, UK Research Councils and Government departments co-deliver a number of other programmes that will help to inform sustainable food production, for example:

· Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) [8] – A major partnership of 22 organisations across the Research Councils, Government departments and agencies. Under the auspices of LWEC, notable investments of relevance include the Insect Pollinators Initiative (2009, £10M), funded by BBSRC, NERC, Defra, the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust to provide an evidence base to inform the conservation of wild insect pollinators and to improve the husbandry of managed species, in order to avoid the potentially catastrophic loss of the ecosystem services they provide.

· Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) [9] – Partnership between DFID, NERC, ESRC. This multidisciplinary £40.5m research programme aims to deliver high quality and cutting-edge research that will deliver improved understanding of how ecosystems function, the services they provide, the full value of these services, and their potential role in achieving sustainable poverty reduction. ESPA research will provide the evidence and tools to enable decision-makers and end-users to manage ecosystems sustainably and in a way that contributes to poverty reduction.

· Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) [10] Partnership between ESRC, NERC, BBSRC, Scottish Government, Defra. The £24M Rural Economy and Land Use9 programme is helping us to understand the social, economic, environmental and technological challenges that rural areas face. Its interdisciplinary research is informing policymakers' choices about how to manage the countryside and rural economies, including in relation to production and supply of sustainable food. It also aims to encourage the social and economic vitality of rural areas, and promote protection and conservation of rural environments.

Other relevant BBSRC investments

13. BBSRC is the lead Research Council for food: ‘Food Security - bioscience for a sustainable supply of sufficient, affordable, nutritious and safe food, adapting to a rapidly changing world’ is one of the three key priorities in the Council’s Strategic Plan [11] . BBSRC spends almost half its budget on food-related research and training, around £190M per year out of the total UK government spend of over £400M [12] .

14. Funding is primarily through UK universities and BBSRC-supported research institutes [13] . BBSRC also funds industrial collaborative schemes, international collaborations and public engagement which help to add value to the research and increase its impact. In addition, BBSRC is the primary funder of postgraduate studentships related to food.

15. Recent BBSRC investments in this area include:

· Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) [14] . A major new initiative announced in January 2011 will fund teams from the UK, India and developing countries to work on research projects to improve the sustainability of staple food crops. Up to £20M is available, made up of contributions from BBSRC, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, DFID and the Indian Government’s Department of Biotechnology.

· Enhancing photosynthesis (2011): A joint BBSRC and US National Science Foundation scheme developed multidisciplinary, transformative, and high risk- high reward proposals on enhancing photosynthesis. It funded four proposals from a total fund of £6M. A parallel BBSRC initiative has funds of £2M available.

· Wheat pre-breeding Programme (2011): a £7 million grant to a consortium of researchers led by the John Innes Centre, aiming to increase the diversity of traits available in wheat via a comprehensive pre-breeding programme - the first of its kind in the UK for over 20 years.

· Wheat sequencing: a team of UK researchers, funded by BBSRC, released the first sequence coverage of the expressed wheat genome in 2010. The release is a step towards a fully annotated genome and makes a significant contribution to efforts to support global food security and to increase the competitiveness of UK farming.

· BBSRC’s Advanced Training Partnership scheme, with up to £15M funding over five years, will support the development and delivery of postgraduate training for the agriculture and food industries through partnerships between consortia of organisations.

· LINK: BBSRC continues to invest in the LINK scheme and has funded over £5M in recent years in partnership with industry to address problems across the food chain.

· Food safety: As part of the UK government’s Campylobacter strategy BBSRC has recently invested over £3M with Defra and FSA in a series of joint initiatives to tackle the leading cause of food-borne disease in the UK.

· Crop Improvement Research Club: funding of £6M (plus £0.5M from the Scottish Government and £0.5M in subscriptions from 14 company members of the club) for industry-relevant research on wheat, barley and oilseed rape for food and animal feed uses, with crop quality and productivity as high priority topics.

· The Sustainable Agriculture and Food Platform, led by the Technology Strategy Board, with support from BBSRC and Defra, will see investment of up to £75M to support the development of new technologies that will increase food productivity, while decreasing the environmental impact of the food and farming industries.

· North Wyke Farm Platform: BBSRC has recently invested over £1M in an experimental "farm platform" for sustainable agriculture research at the North Wyke site of Rothamsted Research.

Other relevant NERC investments

16. NERC is the primary UK funding agency for all research, training and knowledge exchange in environmental sciences. Biodiversity, Climate science, and Sustainable use of natural resources are three of NERC’s seven strategic science themes that direct research which contributes significantly to the knowledge-base useful to sustainable food production. NERC has a number of research centres [15] , collaborative centres and other service and facilities providers which play a leading role in delivering the science to understand environmental impact of change within systems. NERC has recently invested in a number of research programmes which either directly or indirectly consider food production systems and the ecosystem goods and services supporting these systems:

17. NERC has been the principal sponsor of the "Global Environmental Change and Food Systems" project (GECAFS) [16] which has significantly boosted the food systems approach to food security in the context of global change. ESRC has also made a significant contribution.

18. NERC has recently invested in a number of research programmes which either directly or indirectly consider food production systems and the ecosystem goods and services supporting these systems. Relevant examples are listed below:

· Biodiversity & Ecosystem Service Sustainability (BESS) [17] . A five-year research programme, which aims to contribute to the understanding of the functional role of biodiversity in key ecosystem processes.

· Valuing Nature Network (VNN) [18] . A two-year network in order to promote and develop research capacity in the valuation of biodiversity, natural resources and ecosystem services

· Macronutrient Cycles [19] . Aims to quantify the scales of nitrogen and phosphorus fluxes and nature of transformations through the catchment under a changing climate and perturbed carbon cycle.

· Changing Water Cycle [20] .Will develop an integrated, quantitative understanding of the changes taking place in the global water cycle to improve predictions for the next few decades of regional precipitation, evapotranspiration, soil moisture, hydrological storage and fluxes.

· Virtual Observatory [21] . Will define the concepts and methods that will enable a better understanding of the water-soil system of rivers.

Other relevant ESRC investments

19. The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high-quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. A number of the Council’s seven Strategic Plan priorities have a resonance with the challenges of providing sustainable food. Key ESRC research investments in this area are listed below:

· Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre [22] . STEPS examines the complex relationships between agriculture/food, health/disease and water/sanitation from a developing world perspective, linking environmental sustainability and technology with poverty reduction and social justice.

· Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society (BRASS) [23] . The focus of BRASS research is on interactions between businesses and their social and physical environment. BRASS includes a research domain that focuses on sustainable agriculture. BRASS won a research contract, working with the Welsh Assembly Government and Food and Drink Advisory Partnership to develop the new 10 Year Food and Drink Strategy for Wales.

· Waste of the World [24] . The research examines waste economies, the commodity chain and the destruction of excess. Waste of the World features a research project that looks at various aspects food waste.

· Social and Environmental Economic Research (SEER) into Multi-Objective Land Use [25] . The research examines the optimal use of land through economic assessment of effects from policy, market or environmental change, and secondary consequences and feedback effects. The ‘true’ value of the land is examined in terms of its market value and its wider social value. Research of this type clearly has an important role to play when considering sustainable food systems.

28 March 2011

[1] BBSRC:

[2] ESRC:

[3] NERC:


[5] RCUK Food Security Programme:

[6] UK Cross-Government Food Research and Innovation Strategy (GO-Science, 2010), Annex 2 and 4:

[7] LWEC:

[8] LWEC:

[9] ESPA:

[10] Relu:

[11] BBSRC Strategic Plan: /


[13] BBSRC institutes: http://www.bbsrc. a

[14] SCPRID:

[15] Centre for Ecology & Hydrology , British Geological Survey , National Oceanography Centre , and British Antarctic Survey .

[16] GECAFS:

[17] BESS:

[18] VNN:

[19] Macronutrient Cycles:

[20] Changing Water Cycle:

[21] Virtual Observatory:

[22] STEPS centre:

[23] Centre for BRASS:

[24] Waste of the World:

[25] SEER: